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First US, now UK, democracies giving up on strongman leaders. Why it’s unthinkable in India

Democracies are restoring the dull but democratic powers of rules and institutions by dousing the passions that led to the rise of strongman leaders. India isn't there yet.

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If Boris Johnson’s premiership saga were to be unfolding in India, by now groups of MPs would be huddled in resorts with the aim to restore Johnson as leader. Resort-democracy, the flavour of the Indian political season, has not quite arrived here in Britain in a form of reverse colonisation.

The main fixation of the Indian media, however, remains on the prospect of Rishi Sunak perhaps getting the keys to 10 Downing Street. This fixation is off the mark for several reasons, but it exposes yet again the blinding nationalism of Indian media.

The saga brings into sharp relief the current perilous times of Indian democracy. British parliamentary democracy has prevailed over the power of personality. For the Conservatives to take Johnson’s scalp is more significant because he fashioned the biggest win for them since Margaret Thatcher in 1979. Just as Johnson’s individual power had outstripped both parliament and his Conservative Party, the end of his premiership will reinvigorate democracy as it halts the seductive powers of demagoguery.

Such an outcome, where a highly popular leader is deposed for his refusal to play by any institutional or democratic rule is unthinkable in India. The pursuit of personal power at the expense of institutions remains the de facto definition of Indian democracy. From legislatures to political parties to say nothing of the courts, all seem hostage to the whims and wishes of the individual leader. This is as true of Kolkata and Mumbai as it is of New Delhi.

Comparable mass democracies to India such as America and Britain are now seeking to douse the passions that led to strong personal identification with the leader in the hope to restore the dull if predictable and ultimately more democratic powers of rules, processes and institutions. To be sure, this is not due to some ethical awakening. Rather, the complexities of the post-pandemic world and domestic orders now demand sobriety and expertise. 

Also read: Modi govt’s assault on democracy is more sinister than the Emergency. Look at the differences

Strongman democracy 

To clip and cut off the personal powers of Johnson is no mean achievement. With this curtain call, it is perhaps also the final act for the era of the strongman that has shaped global democracy in our times.

But Johnson was somewhat late to the party of personalities that has been rocking mass democracies (and non-democracies) across the world. In his recent book The Age of the Strongman, foreign affairs editor of the Financial Times Gideon Rachman identified a new global political arc.

Marked by men who borrowed from the copybook of the celebrity as they reduced democracy to personal popularity, these leaders assiduously fashioned themselves as authentic and wildly popular embodiments of ‘the people’. From Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil to Vladimir Putin in Russia to even Xi Jinping in China, Narendra Modi in India, Donald Trump in America and as literally the last entrant to this galaxy, Boris Johnson—all emerged as millenarian saviours.

You can call them ‘populists’ or ‘democratic authoritarians’ or ‘illiberal democrats’—the buzzwords of the commentariat and academia too—but to my mind none of these epithets capture the messianic power these leaders have unleashed, and in turn who have unfailingly demanded obedience, loyalty and even devotion from ‘the people’.

As good orators they have successfully deployed a cunning mix of the comedic and dramatic in their rhetoric and words to produce a new political truth, namely that institutions are the obstacles to the power of the people. Each country (Britain, America and India) has recently produced a new and specific vocabulary of abuse and ridicule against what they have deemed the established political order.

In Britain, the more polite epithets include the ‘Westminster bubble’ and the ‘LME’ (liberal metropolitan elite) or the ‘citizens of nowhere’ who became political targets and enemies primarily due to their expertise and rejection of xenophobia.

Also read: The great paradox of Indian democracy: citizen uprisings but no opposition

First and last post-truth PM

Post-truth may have delivered Brexit, but it is now the key obstacle in the working of the British government. Johnson has been dubbed as the first post-truth British prime minister and he may well be the last too.

In the harsh reality of severe global economic challenges that are being felt by citizens of nowhere, somewhere, and everywhere, there is no hiding. The Tories ultimately recognised that the dull work of government cannot be replaced by an entertaining soap opera.

The Johnson episode is instructive because his end has come from within the heart of his own political party, which is both Right-wing and whose rise to power he helmed. His premiership has witnessed the illegal proroguing of parliament, an open contest with the judiciary (especially over asylum), quite apart from the tawdriness of ‘partygate’. Above all, Johnson’s wayward skating on the thin ice of truth triggered the endgame.

The Conservative Party now seeks to reverse the rot and cult of individual ambition and hubris that has stalked the British political landscape for almost a decade. Through this internal Tory putsch, a party driven above all by ruthless power, has delinked government from authority.

In letting go of its biggest personality, the hope is to re-empower British democracy. The single decapitation of Johnson’s premiership has reinstated the powers of both the party and parliament. The absence of the play of personality is already in evidence in the many contenders to the party leadership. Strikingly, each resignation from Johnson’s cabinet reposed its faith in a politics of ‘integrity’. The lack of personal charisma need not necessarily mean a return to bland managerialism. British politics is likely to return to a contest of competing visions of government as the opposition Labour Party too gears into action.

Such a degradation of personal power is next to impossible in India’s democracy, which is now synonymous only with elections. The reasons are many but the key point to note for now is that the deinstitutionalisation of Indian politics is much older than the current age of the strongman. What is increasingly clear, however, is that India will soon stick out like a sore thumb in the global club of mass democracies. Indians may no longer care (but they really do!) what global clubs and rankings think of it. In its current addiction for strongman politics, it will be the much-glorified ‘people’ of India who will indeed pay for their blind devotion to a charismatic leader.

Shruti Kapila is Professor of Indian history and global political thought at the University of Cambridge. She tweets @shrutikapila. Views are personal.

(Edited by Prashant)

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